Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks

ReflectionsRecently I said it’s a great time to be a David Lynch fan, and since the announcement of its return, I’ve only become more optimistic. It’s a long road to 2016 and many fans have begun re-watching the original series. But if you’re looking for more, I recommend Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes.

Dukes conducted and compiled interviews with about 90 people, ranging from television executives and agents to actors and crew that worked on the short-lived series. Co-creator Mark Frost gives significant contributions as do Angelo Badalamenti and several of the series’ directors. David Lynch, notoriously silent about his own work, is not to be found in Reflections. This is not surprising, but his absence is felt.

Fans of the show will be quickly swept up into the germinal stages of the project. It’s exhilarating to read about the hundreds of tiny pieces that had to fall into place for Twin Peaks to air on ABC. From the scripting stages, enthusiasm for the project was fiercely contagious, and just about everyone involved seems to have understood they were part of something monumental.

This book may give newcomers a sense of the cultural impact the show had in its time, and a better understanding of how that impact has spread out across television to this day. But I recommend some familiarity with the show and its players; putting faces to the names on the page brings out the colour and significance of many of these interviews.

Unfortunately, the demise of Twin Peaks wasn’t pretty, and Reflections gives a thorough account of the attendant frustrations and disappointment. As optimistic as everyone was in season one, political pressures, creative troubles and declining ratings left many of the players cynical about Twin Peaks. The hopefulness felt in the book’s opening chapters slowly gives way to the harsh realities of network television, and we as readers are along for the ride.

Reflections offers great breadth of opinion about the television series, but aside from a few disparaging remarks, it almost completely ignores the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While this movie is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, Fire Walk With Me is in my opinion the keystone of the series, and provides a crucial (and horrifying and beautiful) endnote to the creative efforts behind Twin Peaks. Although Frost was not involved in the movie, nor Lynch in the book, there are more than enough voices to cover the topic, and Reflections suffers for the omission.

Otherwise, Dukes has done a beautiful job of curating the material. He allows the interviewees to tell their story, giving his readers a backstage pass to one of the most important television events of the 20th century. Reflections is also a beautifully produced book, with gorgeous cover art and exclusive (B&W) photos on nice paper. It makes a perfect addition to the bookshelf of any Twin Peaks fan.

Does Twin Peaks Hold Up?

Recently a friend admitted he hasn’t seen Twin Peaks, and asked me if it holds up to TV today. I hit him with a log and told him I’ve been too big a fan too long to have any objectivity. But I started thinking about it, and I don’t think a yes or no answer does justice to the question.

Twin Peaks was a bit of an experiment. The network took a chance on something different and it took off. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” became an international issue. The build up was tremendous, but the network wanted the mystery solved shortly into season two, basically dismantling the underlying story engine.

The pilot episode of Twin Peaks remains one of the best pieces of television ever made. The opening pulls us into the town where dozens of unique characters live idiosyncratic lives and there are secrets in every shadow. The writing is incredible, and the visual style, oneiric music and sense of place form an absorbing cinematic landscape.

Mark Frost and David Lynch mapped out the full first season before production (a mid-season pick-up of 7 episodes), and I think the show grew into its serial form well, expanding the town and getting markedly stranger. Many shows take us into weird territory these days, but they didn’t then, and even now they can’t touch Twin Peaks‘ sense of style.

The second season was much more troubled. 22 episodes were written on the fly and they proceeded with a fairly embattled production. This season comes on strong, and then after its finest moments the story begins to lag. Lynch and Frost were away from the production on other projects, and gradually the humour became more absurd, the mystery lost traction, and it took nearly to the end of the second season to start producing great TV again.

So does Twin Peaks hold up? It’s a very uneven show. When they were in the groove, they made some of the finest television of all time. When they lost their way, some of it is weak and just plain silly. If you can get past the surface flaws and into the mythological space of the show, the dream realms and darkness in the woods, it’s a captivating world you’ll never want to leave.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch the pilot. It is 90 minutes, the same runtime as most throwaway comedies, and it is available on Netflix. (Make sure you don’t watch the European version of the pilot, as it has a false ending.) If it doesn’t grab you, you can walk away, but I might look at you funny.

Welcome To The Waiting Room: Twin Peaks 2016

Twin Peaks trended worldwide yesterday when Showtime announced that a third season of the show will air in 2016. The event will be a 9-episode miniseries, written by original creators David Lynch and Mark Frost with Lynch directing every coffee-soaked episode.

Rumors of a reboot have piled up for years, at one point prompting Lynch to flatly deny there would ever be a continuation of the show. But on October 3rd, Lynch and Frost simultaneously tweeted THIS:

If you’re like me, you know that when two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention. Fans of the show have been waiting for something to happen for 25 years, and Monday morning, they saw THIS:

It was fun to wheel through the timeline and see everyone lighting up. Social media has already brought us Twin Peaks blogs and podcasts, artwork and custom coffee cups, spoofs and mash-ups, and more content than any fan could absorb. But the online craze is its own event.

Social media is hard proof that Twin Peaks fans are a serious market force; they’re fiercely addicted and loyal to the show and Amazon knows it. But I’ve consciously tried to avoid the Packard Rumor Mill to keep my expectations realistic.

Twin Peaks was the first great piece of art I ever ‘got’. It became my benchmark for genius on television (and elsewhere). And the best part of the show, and its creators, was their ability to deliver the unexpected. So I’m confident in the reboot. Lynch and Frost had something then, and they’ve both grown as artists.

I’ve had over 20 years to re-watch, ponder and mythologize (I saw it first in 1994), and the show has a very personal meaning for me. If I try to keep up with all the speculation on Twitter my head will probably explode. Ignoring it is nearly impossible, but ideally I’d like to sit down in 2016 to new content without thinking about any of the speculation, like a babe in the woods, if you will.

2016 is a long way off, so welcome to The Waiting Room. Fortunately I have my gorgeous Blu-ray box set to keep me company until then. And when the reboot does finally arrive…well, one day my blog will have something to say about that.

 

No Pressure, David Lynch

The phrase “ahead of his time” seems like a bit of a backhanded compliment. It’s like an apology for why an artist does not have popular appeal despite being head and shoulders above his competition. Like the artist has too much vision. So much that most people don’t get it.

Twin Peaks The Entire MysteryIt’s been 8 years since his last film, but David Lynch‘s popularity seems bigger than ever. 2014 sees the Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, which includes the pilot, 29 episodes, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and an infamous 90-minutes-worth of deleted from FWWM.

Twin Peaks, labeled “ahead of its time” in 1990, has shaped television and film culture for twenty-five years and it is widely regarded as a must-see television classic. And it’s nice to see such enthusiasm around this release in social media. The Blu-ray release is apparently a big enough deal to warrant live events, like the August 30th TIFF Bell Lightbox screening of FWWM with stars Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise and Sherilyn Fenn (Fenn didn’t make the final cut of the movie, but remains one of the most alluring women in television history).

EraserheadSo I guess Lynch was really ahead of his time with Eraserhead (1977), which is set for a sickeningly overdue Blu-ray release from Criterion this September. The disc boasts 4K resolution, which will make it far and away the best picture available shy of a film print. Incidentally, I once saw a 35mm screening in LA, but the picture was misaligned, some very crucial framing botched, and some of the special effects magic was ruined by the mistake. The audience was pissed. I was, anyway.

Might audiences be finally catching up with Lynch? His last film wasn’t even a film, proper, but a DV experiment in complexly layered identities. But despite its dark, baffling structure, 3-hour length and deeply idiosyncratic symbolism, Inland Empire wasn’t reviled by critics nearly as much as I expected.

What a great coincidence it would be if Lynch came out of his self-imposed retirement from film. We know he would have an audience. It’s a niche audience, sure, but many will go see anything he puts out. However, Lynch’s films have a tendency to be savagely unexpected and rarely cater to anything resembling a popular market. He obviously only makes films when he feels inspired to do so. But seriously Mr. Lynch, get on that.

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

Going Abroad

I recently had to make a tough decision about a very dear item. My Twin Peaks VHS box-set had to go. There is no way I could just throw it out; this is the series that started my high school obsession. It blew my mind and made me realize I wanted to make movies. It also introduced me to worlds I never knew existed.

Fortunately I’ve found the box-set a good home, and I hope the recipient will get from it even a fraction of what I did. I have a lot of history with those tapes. They were my first introduction to the work of David Lynch, who quickly ousted Stanley Kubrick as my favorite director. I think Kubrick is probably the greatest that ever lived, but there’s something mysterious about Lynch that I can’t resist.

I think it was in the biography Lynch on Lynch where he mentioned that Federico Fellini was one of his major influences. The first Fellini movie I watched was . I find it hard to talk about  because it hit me on such a personal level, but suffice it to say that I think it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. So I lost myself in the Italian auteur’s catalog. This was a breakthrough for me because I don’t believe I had ever seen a foreign film before 8½, or if I had, it wasn’t memorable.

Now I had a taste for it. I was interested to see movies from other cultures, movies from filmmakers who had a different way of life. I quickly realized that the Hollywood system seemed content within a certain set of values, a homogenous morality and thin, nearly meaningless output. So I unconsciously decided to become a film snob. Fortunately, my brother Jay had a copy of Agurre: The Wrath of God.

That stunning, visceral, hallucinatory take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the same source material as Apocalypse Now) made me giddy, and Aguirre is still one of my favorites. German master Werner Herzog became my next guru. He is one of the most exciting and prolific filmmakers I know of, even to this day, and the book Herzog on Herzog made me laugh my ass off. His genius is unique.

From Germany my tastes headed north, to Denmark, when Lars von Trier hypnotized me with The Element of Crime. I really did not connect with all of von Trier’s movies, but he is a magician when he hits, and his recent return to form has me considering, maybe masochistically, of going to see his new film Nymphomaniac.

Near that time my brother showed me Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard. It was funny, it was noir, it was smart, and it was beautiful. Plus, it had Anna Karina. I balanced Godard’s panache with the solemnity of Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. While Masculin Feminin had me giggling, Scenes From A Marriage left me gutted.

But when I caught wind of Andrei Tarkovsky, I started a pilgrimage to Russia starting with the sci-fi classic Solaris. It could easily be argued that Tarkovsky films are boring. He even joked about it himself. But the word boring tends to lose all meaning for me when I get wrapped up in a journey of Tarkovsky’s. Even the bizarre, didactic Stalkera 2 hour, 40 minute sci-fi allegory about transcendence–ranks as one of my favorite films.

Just like that, I had made it from a small logging town in Washington state all the way across Europe. It’s rare that we can trace the cause of our decisions in such clear ways, but I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for that Twin Peaks VHS box-set, I wouldn’t have seen so much of Europe so fast. And now it’s time to move on. After all, the Twin Peaks Blu-ray box-set comes out this year.

Walking With Fire

Early in university I had a pretty nasty bout of insomnia. After a few weeks I really started to notice the bizarre mood swings that result from no sleep. In the course of one hour I could laugh hysterically at the most unfunny things, then almost weep because my coffee was cold. At night I couldn’t shut off my thoughts, and I couldn’t ignore them enough to fall asleep. My brain jumped from topic to topic without any focus, like flicking through channels on the television. By morning, after five or six hours of this without any break, I’d get up and go to school. It wasn’t long before my life felt like a hallucination. It wasn’t as awesome as it sounds.

I had a good friend who wasn’t sleeping either, and we both compounded the issue by overdrinking coffee. We decided to watch all of Twin Peaks consecutively. This includes a 1.5-hour pilot episode, twenty-nine episodes and the feature film that is the crown jewel of the experience, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It took us about thirty-five hours. Even though sleep wasn’t a real option for either of us, the quality of consciousness during and after a marathon like that is particularly strange. We must have drank three pots of coffee, eaten two pies (one cherry, one apple), and snacked on junk food between pies, so by the time we were finished our brain chemistry was in shambles.

We finished around three or four in the morning and I walked the short distance home to clear my head. But I had been about a week without a night of sleep and had just been on the multidimensional roller coaster ride of Twin Peaks, plus I was full of caffeine and sugar, so my head was anything but clear. The walk home was like wading through neon porridge.

I noticed a bright, warm glow coming from down my street. Closer inspection revealed that the front porch of my house was blazing with fire, flames about five feet tall. I ran up the porch, reached over the fire to ring the doorbell hoping to wake someone up. I tried to stamp out the flames before they caught the awning on fire.

It was a big, blocky, wooden planter in the shape of a swan that burned. The thing used to hold plants. The thing was put together with nails.

My foot came right down on a nail that drove through the sole of my shoe into the ball of my foot. When I lifted my foot there was a smoldering piece of wood attached to it. I backed down the porch on one foot, hands on the railings, as my mom opened the front door and realized what was going on. She got water while I pulled off my shoe, prying the nail out of my foot at a painful angle.

A pitcher of water put out the blackened swan. The fire was under control.

Inside I pulled off my sock and was surprised to find no blood. The nail had been hot enough to cauterize the opening so my foot was swelling up with blood. With an old pair of fingernail scissors I punctured the skin and blood shot out with such a force that it painted a thin red line on the far wall, like a big squirt from a ketchup bottle. I laughed my ass off.

An hour later I was in a deep sleep.

“Is this real Ben? Or is it some strange and twisted dream?” - Jerry Horne

Blog Critics

The holidays, despite being holidays, have been very busy. When I realized Christmas and New Years both landed on Tuesdays, the thought occurred to give myself a week off. Well, this is that week. Clearly I’m only posting something now because I value consistency. As I’ve done in the past, I’m copping out this week and instead posting a couple of my recent reviews.

MUSIC REVIEW: SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – ASCENT

Article first published as Music Review: Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent on Blogcritics.

"Ascent" by Six OrgansDrag City released a new installment from psychedelic folk pioneer Ben Chasney on August 21, 2012, entitled Ascent. He has been recording under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance for over a decade now, and this time out, offers up typical mysticism wrapped in a package of space travel and cosmic resonance.

More band-oriented than any of his previous works, the influence of working with groups like Comets on Fire and Rangda is felt substantially here. While I appreciate the evolution of Chasney’s style over the last decade and a half, I find myself missing the quiet, droning, meditative acoustic work that was the hallmark of the outfit for the first half of its existence. Ascent is more like a rock album than the previous dozen albums. But fans are mightily used to experimentation when it comes to Six Organs, and should be pleased with this record.

The band, a slightly reorganized Comets on Fire, does play well together, and the opener, “Waswasa”, is a dynamic, riff-based jam that evokes the familiar noise and chaos of Chasney’s electrified solos. Recorded live from the floor in Louder Studios by Tim Green, the LP sounds fantastic and the players mesh beautifully. Simultaneously clean and dirty, loud and subtle, Six Organs and Green have stepped their game up from The Sun Awakens (Drag City). And “Waswasa” has the perfect psychedelic drive to set the stage for a real Ascent.

Second track “Close to the Sky” has a nice mellow feel reminiscent of “Blue Sunday” from The Doors, but after five minutes the cyclical bass groove begins to wear. Chasney seems to be comfortable in a band setting these days; the drums, bass, and rhythm guitars fill the frequencies while his solos arc overhead. Earlier recordings highlighted Chasney’s acoustic folk-raga style, and fans of old-school Six Organs might find some of these tracks a bit diluted. Chasney relies on his bandmates a bit too heavily and some tracks lack the direction of earlier Six Organs.

The best example of this is “One Thousand Birds”, a re-imagined oldie from the Six Organs classic Dark Noontide (on Holy Mountain Records). The original has nothing but clattering percussion and one gloriously stringy acoustic guitar until an electric squall discharges and takes it to the next level. Ascent‘s version spreads the parts between more people without adding to the complexity and impulse of the song. And Chasney’s iconic voice, usually used like such an integral instrument, falsettos on top of the music and doesn’t sell the message like the original.

Fans of the droning profundity Six Organs uses to warp us through the interior maze will be happy with “They Called You Near”. It’s a deep, murmuring, dark space that drips down the brain stem with layers of guitar and noise supporting Chasney’s chant-like vocals. The acoustic coda is beautifully clean (both recording and performance) and melds with the slow Side A closer, “Solar Ascent”.

Side B is a four-song mix of familiar styles starting with the aforementioned “One Thousand Birds”. The dreamy, lilting “Your Ghost” gives way to a rocking entreaty to burn memories (“Even If You Knew”) that makes it past the seven-minute mark without getting old. And the finale, “Visions (From Io)” is a gorgeous slow jam that blends science fiction and magic to send us out into the world in a cloud of oneiric bliss.

The packaging of the LP is one of the slickest in the Six Organs collection. The cover hints at the sci-fi narrative Chasney has in mind for this record, while the back cover is a forthright magical symbol. This dichotomy works for the record and the themes can be seen across Chasney’s career.

Six Organs has always been about Ascent, both inner and outer. The simple liner notes (including lyrics) are printed on a lovely dot matrix one sheet. Though I haven’t heard the digital version, I’m betting fans will be happy purchasing the vinyl version, which is a great value for less than $20. Not the best Six Organs record, it’s still light years beyond most contemporary music.

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Blue Velvet on Blogcritics.

Blue VelvetIn 1986 David Lynch created his most concise and iconic film, Blue Velvet. A modern noir and a pervert’s detective story, it offers the most succinct iterations of the themes that have spanned his career. His first film with the coveted “final cut” clause (under De Laurentiis Entertainment Group), Blue Velvet is distilled Lynch – a textural ride into our subconscious where dark desires hide from the light of day. “It’s a strange world,” is the perfect mantra for this psychosexual masterpiece.

Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most accessible films for those new to his work. Perhaps more balanced and commercial than any of his other movies, the film offers a striking blend of high school innocence and psychotic despair (embodied by the two female leads). The seeds planted by Blue Velvet blossomed into the cult television hit Twin Peaks by Lynch and Mark Frost, and both projects continue to influence popular culture from American Beauty to AMC’s The Killing. Other projects from Lynch feel much darker and esoteric. While I can watch Lynch’s films just about any time, I can confidently say that Lost Highway is not the best movie for a first date.

It’s obvious that mystery is what turns Lynch’s crank, and protagonist Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the perfect surrogate for the auteur. Jeffery is an amazing blend of gee-whiz Hardy Boy and torrid voyeur. Mild-mannered, geeky, and friendless in his hometown, he is drawn irresistibly into the deep river of mystery just below the surface of his familiar world. It’s his compulsion toward the unknown that drives Jeffery. Lynch uses him as a key to our restrained impulses; we find ourselves drawn into the act of observation, afraid of how deep and dark our own desires go.

Dennis Hopper creates one of the most terrible villains in film history whose erratic and drug-induced violence shows us just how dark things can get. Frank’s twisted sexual behavior leaves us feeling gutted, but his emotional vulnerability to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” adds such a specific and bizarre dimension to his evil that we’re drawn into his mania even as we fear it. When Frank commandeers Jeffery for a wicked joyride, he leers at Jeffery in the back seat, and at us through Jeffery’s POV, and says, “You’re like me.” It’s chilling because we recognize Jeffery’s perversion as a faint reflection of Frank’s, as well as our own desire to look into the darkness of Blue Velvet.

Familiar themes of light and dark, love and fear, order and chaos, are set in motion in the first scene of the picture. Fifties-era white-picket fences and manicured lawns give way to a dizzying horror of bugs crawling and scratching the dirt. The iconic severed ear is a perfect symbol for Lynch’s work, acknowledging the senses before diving through perception to Something Else. And it’s his unique ability to show us that Something Else that distinguishes Lynch as one of the most important artists in the medium.

The 1080p video looks amazing. The digital transfer was supervised by David Lynch, as was the previous Special Edition DVD, which looked pretty good. But the Blu-ray edition blows the doors off the DVD. It’s unclear whether the bump in quality is from the resolution alone, or if they’ve carefully recolored and timed the whole movie, but the HD version captures much more of the original film look with beautiful fidelity. The dark scenes have depth and the colours are resplendent. I detected only a slight trace of noise in a few shots.

What impressed me even more than the picture was the sound. From the start of his career, Lynch has understood that video and sound are two equally important halves of filmmaking. One reason his films are so absorbing is because of his emphatic attention to sound design. From Eraserhead to Inland Empire, Lynch’s meticulous sound work builds the environment around the characters, forming a fuller sensory world than traditional filmmakers. Layering room tones, distant machinery, wind, humming lights, and musical score, he fleshes out the mood of each moment, bringing us more in touch with the psychology of the character.

One of the disappointing things about the old DVD version was the sound. Obviously a lot of time had been spent trying to manicure the soundtrack, but I believe the digital technology just wasn’t capable of delivering a satisfying product at the time. Background noise in the dialogue wasn’t blended properly with the ambience of the scenes, and so the dialogue seemed haloed with a subtle hiss. This may simply have been the result of bad compression. But the Blu-ray edition has fixed this impressively.

I marveled throughout the movie at how clearly I could make out subtleties in the quiet moments. Particularly with the sultry voice of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the dynamic range of the soundtrack really shows off the depth of the original recordings. As both a cinephile and an audiophile, I can’t stress enough how important the sound is to the movie-watching experience, and I think this fact alone is reason enough to buy the Blu-ray edition. Even if you’ve only recently bought the DVD version, as I have, it’s well worth it (until the next jump in technology takes place later this afternoon).

The Blu-ray edition offers great special features as well. Over fifty minutes of deleted scenes have been found and beautifully restored in HD for fans who can’t get enough. Previously seen as only a “Deleted Scene Montage” of stills on the DVD, fans will enjoy Frances Bay’s comic timing, a hilarious jazz stand-up routine, and a gorgeous, electric scene with Jeffery and Dorothy on the roof of her apartment. A smattering of outtakes and vignettes only leaves us wanting more, but the “Mysteries of Love” documentary (previously on the DVD) bulks up the package.

Twenty-six years after its original release, Blue Velvet is still as fresh, shocking, and cool as ever. This Blu-ray release is as satisfying as I could have hoped. Not only are the video and sound leagues better than any previous version since the actual celluloid, but the restored deleted scenes make this the definitive version to own.

P.S. For a more plot-oriented review of this product, El Bicho has written a good one.

Imagine THAT

I tend to think of Art abstractly, as an idealized magical process. New things are created where before there was nothing. It generally starts with an idea or intuition out of which grows the impetus to create. Usually that first idea or an intertwining between two ideas comes with a great spark of enthusiasm that represents some sort of ecstatic truth. People would ‘get it’ perfectly if they could only feel exactly THAT.

But at the end of the day, art is something we perceive. I play a linguistic joke on myself when I talk about art without relating it to something in the world that someone is looking at, listening to, contemplating, or experiencing in some fashion. Creating something real that can bring others to that same ecstatic truth is Art. Artists attempt to elicit an experience or a process in their audience. But creating a worldly artifact that can be used by someone to achieve THAT is a process of its own.

Different art forms work differently this way. Some forms of art translate well into our everyday reality. For instance, if I think of a great idea for a book all I have to do is write the book (put words on page), publish the book (print/digital), and I’m done. On the other hand, if I come up with a great idea for a movie, I’ve got a lot more work cut out for me.

Literature, music, painting, and maybe dance are some of the most direct translations of an ecstatic idea, or THAT. In these art forms there is less process or activity for the idea to be lost or degraded. Each activity an artist takes to realize their ecstatic vision of truth takes the artist further from the world of ideas and closer to something that can be perceived by an observer. Even writing can dull the creative spark. Putting an idea into words is a challenge. A greater challenge is finding the right words and putting them into the right structure to guide a reader to a specific intuition.

This is the reason many serious artists don’t like to speak about their work. The ecstatic vision of truth doesn’t come neatly packaged in a few words, an image, or a soundbite. Usually it’s something numinous and mysterious, and the act of creating is the artist’s attempt to make that idea into something intelligible.

When a filmmaker is asked “What is your film about?” they better not have a snappy answer ready. If David Lynch could tell us what Lost Highway is about in one sentence, he shouldn’t have made it. Also, if it was that simple, we shouldn’t have spent 2 hours 25 minutes ingesting it. Fortunately the film exists as a process and a complete whole apart from any explanation. It opens up worlds of intuition for each observer to explore.

With film there are many distinct stages of creation, so the idea can get very far from THAT, the original creative spark. This can be a good thing because each stage demands its own creative treatment and different artists contribute their vision and talent to the final product. At the same time this can be a terrible thing because the successive stages of creation can dilute the power of the original idea. By the time the script is written, the crew and cast hired, the film shot, edited, blended with sound that’s been recorded, foleyed and mixed, and finally presented, the director might look at the screen and think, “This has absolutely nothing to do with my original idea.” The movie Bad Timing by Nicholas Roeg began with a straightforward script and was shot in a straightforward manner. Fortunately in the editing process they discovered a strange take on the material and the film became a beautiful example of non-linear storytelling. The finished product was surely closer to the original creative spark than Roeg expected from his linear script.

Film may be the most challenging art form because it contains so many types of art. Cinematography, production design, costume and make-up, sound recording, acting and more contribute to the overall essence put forth by the script, and this all must be wrangled by a director (who may or may not have written the script, and may or may not get it). The director ultimately, often unfortunately, answers to the producer. The producer is a business man who may or may not have any artistic talent whatsoever.

But film can be one of the most rewarding art forms because it is so absorbing. Film uses our aesthetic eye (like painting), our aesthetic ear and sense of rhythm (like music), our thinking mind (like writing), and our intuition (our own feelings), concerted to give us a two-hour experience, a process which hopefully will enrich us.

Of course, masterpieces in any art form stay with us forever. Good art shows us a vision of life we couldn’t seen without it. And whether we ever make it to exactly THAT, the process of discovery is the important thing.

 

P.S. Follow me on Twitter @EricRSchiller for my micro-blog book report on each chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It’s possibly the craziest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of crazy books.

 

 

I Don’t Dig Dogma

There is an old adage that great art comes from deep pain. I’m pretty sure this is bullshit. It sounds like a pretentious attempt to romanticize depression, as though depressed people are the only ones who truly feel and understand life. While I acknowledge such a thing as an artistic temperament, I have more respect for happy artists than suicidal ones. Despite my attempts to separate artists from their work, nothing taints an artist’s oeuvre for me like suicide.

There is another dubious adage that runs along these lines: “Creative inspiration comes when limitations are imposed.” While this is still mostly bullshit, I understand the thinking very clearly. Having been a part of two independent feature film productions, I understand that you never have the money, time, gear, and (sometimes) talent or technical know-how that you want, and this forces creative problem solving that can be inspirational.

In 1995 a group of Danish film directors decided to emphasize effective storytelling by limiting their productions to a stringent code of “film ethics”. They authored the Dogma 95 Manifesto in which they set rules to strip film-making of its ‘artificiality’. Here are the first three rules:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

The films do not allow murders; the director must not be credited; no special lighting may be used; and finally the director swears to no longer be an artist, but a conduit of truth. It’s an interesting ideal, but to my mind, it hurts film-making as a whole.

Films are one of the best, most recent products of technological innovation in the arts. The entire process depends on technology and always has. And technology evolves, as always, by intelligent design. This intelligent design is almost never useless; practicality is the ideal, and scientists should always strive to make our everyday artifacts more efficient and less taxing on us and our environment.

So why should these Danish filmmakers fear innovation? Understandably, technology brings about completely novel possibilities which are open to abuse of unseasoned artists. Anyone today can buy what they need to make an amateur movie at Best Buy and post their movie on YouTube, so technological development has been accompanied by a surge of lesser quality amateur works. But should this degrade the work of true artists, like Dogma 95 Manifesto scribe Lars von Trier?

Dogma 95, like any religious dogma, attempts to create a static set of values in perpetuity. But nothing is free from change. If values are not adaptable to the world and the people they serve, they become a hindrance. Belief systems ossify in time, leaving followers ill-equipped to deal with reality.

Speaking as a lover of movies and a long time fan of Lars von Trier, I believe artificiality is part of the art form. The whole kick of a movie is getting to observe a reality that is not our own. Locking an audience into a perfect observational trance was achieved masterfully in The Element of Crime, but much less so in The Idiots. Dogma 95 was an interesting experiment, but I’m relieved von Trier has returned to his roots, pushing the technology to create something previous impossible.

Lars von Trier has always worked on dark subject matter. Especially in recent years, with Antichrist and Melancholia, he has shown his mastery over the art form. But I don’t believe his public neuroses and obsession with darkness are necessary to his success as a filmmaker. Considering the trajectory of his recent films, I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t find out on Twitter some day that he decided to end it all.

On the other hand is David Lynch. Lynch’s subject matter often brings us underneath bright, shiny surfaces to reveal devastating chaos and darkness below. Themes of mental anguish, of unreality, and succumbing to dark forces run through his filmography from beginning. Meanwhile the man is bright, happy, and currently operating The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education.

The two have often been compared for having a similar aesthetic and dealing with similar subject matter. And in recent years, each has given us one of the most horrifying films of all time, Antichrist, and Inland Empire (don’t watch Antichrist if you’re not willing to plumb the depths of human sadness and self-hate, and don’t watch Inland Empire if you are concerned with losing your mind). But the two men seem worlds apart. Even if I could truly separate the men from the work, I have always felt much more connected to Lynch’s films.

Great art does not require great pain. Great insight into pain is helpful in art and in life, of course. But being crippled by self-loathing and depression can only diminish your capacity as a person. I believe we all have the ability to live creatively. And I believe that ability is free of charge.

P.S. Thomas Pynchon deals with the technology question in his New York Times article “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” Take a look.